Practicality, art, tradition sewn into every quilt

Quilter Judy Benzel has been at it 'seriously' for 20 years, originally for utilitarian reasons.

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Judy Benzel, shown here modeling a quilt, finds quilting to be relaxing.

Quilting is art and tradition, mixed with practicality. And it's much more, according to experienced quilter Judy Benzel. It's relaxing, and that is very important to her.

Benzel initially learned to sew and quilt from her mom but she's been "seriously" quilting for the last 20 years. It started out as just the practical way to repurpose cloth that still had a useful life. "We lived on a ranch; it was utilitarian. We'd use the backs of worn-out jeans and make rag-time quilts." These are increasingly popular now. Years go by, fashions come and go and then come back again. "It's interesting how if you wait long enough things come back in style," she said.

In creative quilting, nothing is off limits. "I do a little bit of it all," she said. Colors, design, everything. Many quilters end up tackling bigger projects than they can handle, so Benzel has ended up finishing some big projects, started by others.

She has the experience to accomplish many projects and she loves it.

A member of the Quilt Festival Committee, she's been involved with the annual event for years, making quilts to benefit the Blue Mountain Humane Society.

The type of fabric she prefers is 100 percent cotton, her quilts usually have a flannel backing. Cotton is durable, washable and easy to stitch. Other fabrics aren't.

She finished a satin quilt for another quilter, who had become frustrated with the huge project. Crepe backed satin is tricky to work with, very slippery and requires a lot of pinning to keep it in place while it's being sewn.

Except for some hand finishes and accents, she does all her quilting by machine. She's made quilts in all sizes from lap sized quilts to one that fits a king bed.

"It's relaxing. It's my time to relax. It can be challenging but it's fun... Sometimes I just need to go in my sewing room and get my head back on straight," Benzel explained.

"I also like to garden but you can only do so much." Most of the area near her home is left as habitat, so she enjoys a more natural aspect to the garden. The wheat is harvested and it's been a tough year for the vegetable garden so she's more tuned in to quilting at this point in time.

"I've always sewn, the first thing I made was an apron, with my mom. We would make new outfits for school. For Easter my mom and I would make new clothes," she said.

Benzel loves the versatility and possibilities in quilting. "You can do so many things. You can use one pattern and three different fabrics, they will all be completely different. I can use a pattern for inspiration and I sometimes just wing it. I've seen something I've liked and I can use just a piece of it, maybe not the whole thing."

In her sewing room sanctuary, she has a stash of fabric and a hideaway. "I have a closet full of totes with like colors in them and an ongoing project. I'm pretty good with one project at a time," she said.

"I don't like losing track of where I am on the project. I have three or four in my head that I want to do. I know which fabric is next on the list. I'm never short on projects, I always have things waiting in the wings. Although I'm never done, I like to just let my imagination go."

Pursuing her own inspiration and creativity is where her heart is, she's taught quilting before but she'd rather actually be quilting.

"I like my own ideas, learning by hard knocks," she said. Sewing was a family tradition and a way to make extra money through the years with sewing projects for others, including wedding dresses. "I like doing projects, I guess. It's not going to happen unless I do it. It will be done the best that I can." But she's very open to creativity and innovative thought. "Perfection is not all it's cracked up to be," she said.

She was born and raised here and always embraced the wheat ranching life. In addition to a background in agriculture she has worked in education, the forest service, then she worked at Providence St. Mary Medical Center. This year she just celebrated her 26th anniversary with Walla Walla County.

Benzel has enjoyed travel but quilting is never very far from her thoughts, often using the Quilters Travel Companion, to locate quilt stores in unfamiliar areas. "Seriously, we were in the middle of an Iowa cornfield and there was a quilt shop."

Karlene Ponti can be reached by calling 509-526-8324 or by e-mail at karleneponti@wwub.com.

If You Go:

Walla Walla Valley Quilt Festival Sept. 17-19.

Walla Walla County Fairgrounds, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Contact: 541-938-6130 or online see wallawallaquiltfestival.org

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